The NHL Department of Player Safety may not have planned it this way but it appears Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik and Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta could return to action for Game 6 Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.
Orpik, whom Alex Ovechkin called “our best defenseman,” was suspended three games for his late hit on Maatta in Game 2 and was back practicing with John Carlson on Monday at Kettler. Maatta, who missed three games with a suspected head injury, also practiced with the Penguins Monday, wearing a contact jersey.
The Caps went 1-2 without Orpik in the lineup and can force a Game 7 Thursday night at Verizon Center with a win on Tuesday. The Pens went 2-1 without Maatta and can clinch a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals with a win in Game 6.
“It’s obviously been frustrating,” Orpik said. “There’s nothing I can do about it, just watch three games that obviously could have gone either way. It’s not the position we foresaw but we have a good opportunity tomorrow.”
After the Caps lost Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh to fall behind 3-1 in the series, Orpik admitted he wondered if his second season in Washington might end with him wearing a suit instead of a sweater.
“Guys did a good job battling and extending the series,” Orpik said of Saturday’s night’s 3-1 win. “I won’t name names but somebody got suspended hitting Osh a couple of years ago and it was the guy’s last game of his career because he got suspended.”
Orpik was referring to former Minnesota Wild forward Mike Rupp, who was suspended four games for hitting T.J. Oshie with one game remaining in the 2013-14 season. Rupp actually returned to play for the Wild in those playoffs but retired after that season.
“That’s always a tough way to go out, so it definitely crossed my mind. But it’s in the past now and you just kind of move forward and hopefully play well tomorrow night.”
Orpik, 35, grew close with Maatta, 21, when both were in Pittsburgh together two years ago, serving as the young Finn’s mentor.
“He’s a good friend of mine,” Orpik said. “I don’t think that will change. I’ve talked to him since (the hit). I don’t think it makes you feel any better about what happened, but it’s good to see him back on the ice.”
With Orpik back in the lineup it appears the Caps will go with Taylor Chorney over Nate Schmidt on a third defense pairing with Dmitry Orlov. Chorney, 29, sat out the first game of the series but has one assist, has an even plus-minus rating, and has taken one minor penalty in four games against the Pens.
Schmidt, 24, has also played in four of the five games against the Pens, going pointless with a minus-3 with one minor penalty.
“He’s a little older,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said of Chorney, who has played 17 fewer NHL regular season games than Schmidt but played five playoff games for the Penguins last spring. “He’s gone through a few more life experiences. He’s gone through a few playoffs and those all help. They’re very important at this time.”
Chorney said it’s nice to remain in the lineup, but added, “It’s been a next-man-up mentality all season. It works out this way right now, but there are other guys who can probably do the same job. It’s just whoever’s out there taking care of business.”
As for Orpik, his 111 games of playoff experience is third on the Capitals behind Mike Richards (135 games) and Justin Williams (126 games) and he is one of three Capitals with a Stanley Cup ring.
“Brooksie’s a warrior,” Chorney said. “He’s been through the grind, he’s won the Stanley Cup. The experience he has can’t be replaced on our team. Everybody looks to him during times like this. He’s been there and I think it’ll be a huge boost for us.”
Penguins winger and former teammate Chris Kunitiz said there is a lot less space in front of the opposing net when Orpik is on the ice, especially on the penalty kill, where the Caps have allowed just one goal on 31 opportunities during the post-season. (The Penguins went 1-for-9 on the man-advantage in the three games Orpik missed).
“He’s as strong as an ox,” Trotz said. “He’s a big body and he makes it difficult for forwards to get in the interior. He’s a goalie’s best friend.”
Orpik said returning to what promises to be a cauldron in Pittsburgh is nothing new to him.
“I’m sure I’m going to get a great reception from the fans there,” Orpik said with a grin. “But it’s something you’ve just got to block out.
“I think if I was a younger guy it might rattle me a little more, but it’s just another game for me. Ovi gets booed in every building he goes in, so emotion-wise I don’t think it will be any different than any other playoff game I’ve played in.”
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